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Appellate court reverses ruling in wrongful termination case of Southold police officer

The Southold Town Police Department station house on

The Southold Town Police Department station house on Route 25 in Peconic in 2007. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

A former Southold Town probationary police officer’s wrongful termination case against the town was ordered to be reinstated and Southold must turn over new evidence following a Brooklyn appellate court ruling last month.

Garrett Lake, a former police officer honored for DWI enforcement, sued the town in 2016, alleging he was fired for arresting two politically connected men. In 2017, a Suffolk County Supreme Court judge denied his petition to overturn the town’s decision, stating Lake failed to prove his dismissal was motivated by unlawful political motivations or retaliation.

The recent decision, handed down Dec. 30 by a four-judge panel from the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, reverses that lower-court ruling and orders the town to turn over video evidence of arrests made by Lake. Southold officials said he was fired for performance issues, citing the footage as evidence.

"Given the fact that those videos were affirmatively relied upon by the Town in its answer to show that Lake’s employment was terminated due to his poor performance, the Town’s present contention that those same videos are now irrelevant and unnecessary to the issues presented in this proceeding rings hollow," the decision states.

Lake claimed in a lawsuit filed in June 2016 that his involvement in two high-profile arrests played a major role in his dismissal. One involved the July 2015 arrest of Steven Romeo, whose truck collided with a limousine in Cutchogue, killing four women on a North Fork winery tour. Lake claimed Romeo was friends with John Helf Sr., vice chairman of the Southold Town Republican Committee, and that Helf tried to interfere with and obstruct the investigation.

The other case was Lake’s February 2016 DWI arrest of Jamesport assistant fire chief David McKillop. Lake alleged that the Jamesport fire commissioners used "improper politically motivated pressure" on town officials against Lake afterward.

Town officials told the court the arrests had no bearing on Lake’s termination, citing "poor or problematic performance on Lake’s part" as the reason for his dismissal. Town officials specifically cited "certain civilian complaints" that alleged Lake was "overaggressive and overzealous in his use of police tactics in conducting vehicle traffic stops, searches and arrests."

Southold Town attorney Bill Duffy said the town disagrees with the appellate court decision, which he said was made on a technicality and not on the strength of Lake’s argument.

"We’re confident that it will be determined that the petition has no merit and that his allegations are unfounded, and the town will prevail," Duffy said.

Lake’s attorney, Eric Bressler of Wickham, Bressler & Geasa PC, provided a lengthy written statement he required be run in its entirety, which Newsday declined to do.

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